Handle records continue at Will Rogers Downs

BY RON MITCHELL
BloodHorse
04/27/2020 11:30 AM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Horses break from the gate during a race at Will Rogers Downs in Claremore. A record $5.3 million was wagered on its April 21 program. COURTESY
CLAREMORE – Going into its 28-day thoroughbred meet, management at Cherokee Casino Will Rogers Downs was optimistic that its strong purse structure would lead to competitive race cards with appeal to bettors.

But no one could have anticipated the positive effect that the COVID-19 pandemic would have on the track that is operated by the Cherokee Nation in Claremore.

As one of a handful of tracks continuing to conduct live racing without spectators during the novel coronavirus outbreak, with strict social distancing and hygiene safeguards in place, WRD has seen out-of-state wagering on its races soar to record levels.

WRD has been racing on a Monday-through-Wednesday schedule since the meet began March 16, minus the first Wednesday following opening day. It was initially scheduled to race Saturdays rather than Wednesday beginning May 1, but that has since been revised, and the schedule will continue until the meet ends May 20. 

By racing Monday through Wednesday, WRD has historically offered a racing product attractive for both in-state and out-of-state simulcasting and to advance-deposit wagering providers because there is less competition from other tracks on those days of the week.

With even fewer tracks racing because of COVID-19 restrictions, WRD races have become even more popular, setting records nearly every day.

Through April 21, a total of $55 million had been wagered on the 16 programs at WRD for a daily average of $3.5 million. Showing that demand for the racing product has not diminished, the $5.3 million handle April 21 set another record.

In addition to out-of-state simulcasting and advanced-deposit wagering, the track’s traditional revenue streams include on-track handle, intrastate wagering at simulcast outlets, as well as subsidies from the Cherokee Casino. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, there is no on-track or intrastate simulcasting handle and the Cherokee Casino is closed, leaving out-of-state and overseas wagering as the sole source of revenues.

“This is huge,” said John Lies, WRD racing secretary, announcer and morning-line oddsmaker. “It has exceeded expectations, and it is continuing to gain steam, increasing each week. There is no ADW in Oklahoma and no simulcasting. All facilities are closed here except that the races go on. It’s all from out of state and overseas. We have a lot of eyeballs on us right now. We have a good relationship with TVG that we nurture.”

The growth of WRD’s racing program meant the track already had a lot of momentum this year, even before the pandemic.

“While it is true that we have been beneficiaries of a terrible global pandemic that has shuttered other businesses, this meet got tougher in January when we assigned stalls and were successful in luring some new trainers here,” Lies said. “The handle was fantastic. If we were putting out a crappy product, bettors would find other forms of entertainment. We are putting out a horseplayer’s product that we are committed to, and we are seeing momentum week after week. The whole thing is getting better. With other tracks closed, more shippers are coming in to make some of the better allowance races go.”

Through April 21, WRD purses averaged $144,863 daily, according to The Jockey Club Information Systems. Highlighting the track’s racing menu is a stakes series for Oklahoma-breds totaling nearly $500,000.

Lies said he is uncertain of the impact the record handle days will have on purses.

Generally, Saturday racing at WRD is popular throughout May, due to simulcasts of the Triple Crown races and attendance at the casino. Under the current environment, with the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) rescheduled for Sept. 5 and the other Triple Crown races’ dates uncertain, the track opted to trade out the Saturday programs for Wednesday.

“Typically, Saturdays in May are Triple Crown races, and there’s additional simulcast handle to align with that, and we exist in a symbiotic relationship with the casino,” Lies said. “Horse racing in Oklahoma is greatly subsidized by casinos, and therefore their business picks up when we are running Saturday races. We’re able to schedule some of our better races on Saturdays for that reason. We handle a lot more on Mondays, Tuesdays, and, right now, on Wednesdays than we would ever handle on a Saturday. The casino operations are closed, so those days will be shifting back to Wednesday.”

Once the pandemic is over and there is some normalcy within North American racing, it remains to be seen whether WRD will remain on bettors’ radar screens for future thoroughbred spring meets, but Lies believes handicappers have had a positive experience.

“I think horseplayers are looking for action, and human beings are looking for entertainment,” Lies said. “We feel like we have an audience now, and we want to do everything we can to keep that. Our purse money comes from the casino and simulcasting, and the fact those are closed right now is a huge concern. We feel extremely fortunate to be in this position right now. We are able to continue running because we are following the necessary protocols and because in the state of Oklahoma, horse racing is classified as an agricultural business and is therefore essential.”

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the April 23 edition of BloodHorse Daily and appears courtesy of BloodHorse (copyright 2020) www.bloodhorse.com/Daily and bloodhorse.com.

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